Two seemingly contradictory recent Gallup Poll findings sum up what it means to be a woman in the United States who dares to go where only men have gone before: Americans love to think of talented, ambitious women who have overcome obstacles — but the reality of a woman assuming a position of power, particularly over men? That’s not welcome.
According to a Gallup finding in early December, Hillary Clinton’s favorability rating has never been lower, having fallen to 36%, more than a year after she lost the presidency to a man who had no discernible skills for the job. But in another Gallup Poll, just a few weeks later, she was named as the woman Americans admire most — for the 16th consecutive time.
In sum, she is subject to a curse that affects too many women in 21st century America: Americans admire but don’t much like her. We frequently and consistently elect and hire men to lead us on the biggest stages even if we don’t like them, even if they are uncouth, even if they are unqualified. But for women seeking the highest office, talent isn’t enough; neither is accomplishment.
And thus far, no one has discovered the precise formula that will make a woman palatable for enough Americans to break the country’s shameful streak of never having chosen a woman as head of state.
This disturbing aversion is also why nearly a century after women began gaining the right to vote, we’ve had so few female governors and US senators and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies (no matter how qualified the women who have sought such offices). It is why Donald Trump, with historically low approval ratings, sits in the Oval Office as the most powerful person in the free world and is considered the second-most admired man — behind only Barack Obama, one year removed from his presidency, who nonetheless topped this year’s Gallup Poll for the 10th time.
More telling from Gallup is how Hillary Clinton stacks up against her own husband, whose favorability rating this year is 45%, a drop from 50% last year.
That’s right. In the age of #MeToo — when a male Democratic senator like Al Franken, popular with men and women, can be forced to give up his US Senate seat because of allegations of fondling women before he was in office — Bill Clinton is still seen in a more favorable light than Hillary Clinton, despite his having been accused of sexual assault before he was president (which he denies) and abusing his power when he had an illicit relationship with a White House intern while he was the president.
In one sense, the fate of Hillary Clinton is similar to that of ambitious members of any historically under-represented group. Their ability to overcome enormous odds is used as evidence that the country is fair and equal, just as long as they don’t rise high enough to upset the status quo and come to embody real change.
(An example of this is political conservatives in the United States praising Iranian protesters this week for rising up to challenge authorities over longstanding grievances, even as these same conservatives have chided protesters in US towns and cities for committing similar acts of property violence over civil rights abuses. The message: Iranian protesters are not a threat to the American status quo; black and brown American protesters are.)
But in another sense, these Gallup findings illustrate a struggle unique to women, given that Obama was able to twice win the presidency and remains popular; he’s a man, after all. His status quo-breaking accomplishments likely fueled the backlash that gave us President Trump. But Hillary Clinton — like women before her — has been unable to break the still highest, hardest glass ceiling.
When Hillary Clinton was a US senator, she was praised for her intelligence, broad knowledge of the issues, abilities and willingness to work across party lines. She was well liked — but was only one of 100 in the chamber. Americans liked her as secretary of state, too — but she was reporting to a man.
Elevating Clinton, or any woman, to an office in which every man would have to report to her has been a bridge too far for the entirety of American history. For that, we should be ashamed.